Justice Center Proposal Needs 3 Changes

[Note: A slightly modified version of this short piece can be found at: Jim Throgmorton, “Justice Center proposal needs 3 changes,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, (October 23, 2012), p. 8A.]

During our October 2 formal meeting, the Iowa City Council considered a resolution expressing support for the proposed new Justice Center. Unlike all other Council members, I expressed considerable ambivalence and ultimately voted to abstain. I simply had not yet decided how I wanted to vote on the issue.

I am now inclined to vote no on the referendum, and I want to encourage the Center’s proponents to publicly announce three changes that would persuade ambivalent people like me to vote yes.

There is no question in my mind but that we need a new jail in order to protect the health and safety of the inmates and to improve the efficiency of the Jail’s operations. So too I am completely persuaded that the Courthouse needs to be renovated and that new space is needed to ensure the security of jurors, courthouse employees, and the general public. Likewise I think the proposal to build the new Center close to the existing Courthouse is far better than other locations that have been considered.

Too many new beds

But I have not been persuaded that 151 additional beds are required. The Jail’s current capacity is 92 beds, but over the past 3 years, the Jail’s population has averaged 158 inmates per day. This current shortfall of 66 beds is the strongest justification for building a new jail. Most inmates stay for short periods of time: the average length of stay has been 5 to 8 days in the years since 2004. But many stay for much longer periods. Consequently, inmates who stayed for 7-30 days (17%) and 30 days to a year (73%) accounted for most bed use in 2011.

If the population of Johnson County increases by the same percentage (15.2%) as it did from 2000 to 2010, it is hard to see how a shortfall of 66 beds justifies constructing a new jail that will contain 151 additional beds. Odds are good that 40 to 70 beds will remain empty for many years.

Overly aggressive arrest practices

I’m also deeply concerned that the purported need to provide a large number of new beds is tied too closely to overly-aggressive arresting of young black men. According to data I have seen, African Americans account for roughly 23% of all bookings but only 4.7% of the County’s population. Moreover, no one seems to have good data about the percentage of bed-days accounted for by such inmates. Nor has anyone persuasively addressed the concern that building a new jail with a large number of unused beds will simply result in more incarceration of black people.

Uninspiring physical design

Last, I am not yet convinced that the proposed design of the Center’s exterior will be compatible with Iowa City’s exciting and ambitious plans for revitalizing the area south of downtown. Although I have great respect for the architects who crafted the proposal, my sense is that its exterior design greatly detracts from the grace and beauty of the existing Courthouse. The essence of our plans for the area south of Burlington Street and the Riverfront Crossings district is to create a mixed-use neighborhood that will attract new residents and businesses, create a strong sense of place, and greatly enhance the appeal of walking along the neighborhood’s streets. The Clinton Street corridor (and hence the design of the proposed Justice Center) is especially crucial in achieving this effect.

With these three concerns in mind, I would strongly encourage proponents of the new Justice Center to:

  • Scale back the size of the new jail, while retaining space into which the jail could easily expand 10-20 years from now if necessary;
  • Pressure city officials (such as me) in Iowa City and Coralville to ensure that police arrest practices do not unfairly discriminate against African American youths, and to collect solid data about race-related patterns of arrests; and
  • Sponsor a design competition that enables competing architects to generate new proposals for the external physical design of the Center.

If the proponents publicly stated their intent to make these three changes, then I (and people who share my concerns) could wholeheartedly vote for the proposed Justice Center.

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